Remembering Elsa Goveia, a legend in her time

Remembering Elsa Goveia, a legend in her time

July 12, 2019

Death, in most instances, leave a vacuum that’s hard to fill.

Trailblazing University of the West Indies (UWI) History Professor Elsa Goveia’s passing in 1980, however, created an opening for Dr. Hilary Beckles to spread his wings across the Caribbean.

Based in England where he completed his high school and university education, Barbadian-born Beckles accepted an invitation from UWI Professor Emeritus Woodville Marshall (a former Cave Hill Campus Pro Vice-Chancellor and head of the History department) to take up a temporary assignment at the Mona campus in Jamaica.

Goveia, the university’s first female professor, headed the History department at the time.

“When I joined in 1979, she was the intellectual hero of the department,” recounted Beckles who was the Cave Hill campus Principal for 13 years. “It was an extraordinary department of superstars much like the West Indies cricket team in the 1980s. It was quite a remarkable place and I was like the rookie who walked in and said, ‘One day, I would like to be like these people’.”

Beckles got a taste of Goveia’s candor in his first department meeting.

“I walked in early and there was only one soft chair which I sat on,” he said. “In those days, we used to have metal chairs in our university. The professor, who was the only female in the department, came in and I, still remembering some good manners, got up and give her the soft chair. She looked at me and said, ‘Sit down young man, I am not in favour of discrimination for women’. I thought, ‘Oops’. That was an education.”

Goveia chaired Beckles’ first departmental seminar that addressed three rebellion attempts in Barbados in the first 100 years of settlement.

“I spoke for about an hour-and -a-half and, in her summary, she said, ‘If young Beckles is going to speak for an hour-and-a-half on three things that didn’t occur, God help us all if he was going to speak about something that actually happened’,” he related.

Goveia died in Jamaica a few months after Beckles – who had planned to start an academic career at a British university – returned to England.

“I was at my family home in Birmingham when I got the call that Elsa had died,” he said. “I was told I had to return to Jamaica and fill the vacancy left by her.”

Beckles answered the call and the rest is history.

“Elsa was a friend, mentor and extraordinary scholar and intellectual,” said the eminent historian who is leading the case for reparatory justice for hundreds of years of slavery imposed by England.

Goveia was a celestial star that glowed brightly.

Graduating from St. Joseph’s High School in Guyana, she became the first female 75 years ago to win the only British Guiana Scholarship awarded annually for academic excellence.

At the end of the Second World War in 1945, Goveia entered University College in England to pursue History studies with a focus on the social and economic history of Tudor England. She was the recipient of the Pollard Prize two years later awarded annually for the best paper presented at an Institute of Historical Research seminar by a postgraduate student or by a researcher within one year of completing their PhD.

Sir John Neale, the Astor Professor of English History at the university, was stunned by the extraordinary feat.

“When one considers that she comes from the colonies and can scarcely be compared with somebody coming out of a highly cultured West European background, she is phenomenal,” he wrote to the director of Colonial Scholars in 1947.

Obtaining first-class honours in her final exams, Goveia was awarded a University of London research position that enabled her to do research for her PhD.

“It was not until I became a post-graduate student working for my doctorate that I began to do West Indian History,” she once noted.

Goveia’s thesis, ‘Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands 1780-1800’, was completed in 1952, the same year that she was asked to contribute to a series of historiographies of the Americas that was produced by the Pan American Institute of Geography & History.

The result was published in 1956 as the ‘A Study of the Historiography of the British West Indies to the end of the 19th century’.

It was Goveia’s first major publication.

“The object of this book was to discuss the work of historians of the British West Indies and to try to evaluate the work that they have written,” she said.

Two years after the University College of the West Indies (now UWI) History department was established, Goveia joined the staff in 1950 as an Assistant History lecturer and played a lead role in providing research guides and material for the first cohort of Caribbean History students. 

She was elevated to senior lecturer in 1958 and appointed a Professor three years later, making her the first Caribbean person to hold the post and the first and only female Professor at UWI at the time.

Late Guyana diplomat Dr. Robert “Bobby” Moore met Goveia while attending UWI in the 1950s.

“Once you went to her lectures, you became a West Indian nationalist,” he told me an interview. “Very lucid, she opened our minds and was excellent on the topic of slavery. She not only openly talked about the political aspects of slavery, but also the psychological aspects too. When she wanted to describe a particular social atmosphere, she had the capacity to bring it alive in such a way that you almost felt you were there. Nobody missed her lectures. If any single person made me what I am, it was her.”

Moore promised to dedicate the UWI honourary degree he was expected to receive a year before he died in 2015 to Goveia’s memory. He was unable to attend the convocation ceremony in Trinidad & Tobago because of illness.

Historian and political activist Dr. Walter Rodney, who died in 1980, and John Hopkins University Professor Emeritus Dr. Franklin Knight were also students of Goveia.

Knight said he gravitated to historical research and Caribbean History because of Goveia.

“From Elsa Goveia, we learned that there were positive dimensions to Caribbean History and that it was the inescapable responsibility of Caribbean historians to discover and promulgate these,” said Knight who, in 1978, was the first Black faculty member at John Hopkins to secure academic tenure. “To her, the history of the Caribbean was far more than European activities in the region and it certainly pre-dated the arrival of Christopher Columbus. As one of her students, I looked for the continuities and discontinuities in the construction of the societies of the Caribbean and eventually believed that the past was important for the present as well as the future.”

Marshall, who was one of Goveia’s pupils and colleagues, said the fact that her early students found the experience of her teaching West Indian History ‘a revelation’ said much for her own gifts of patient, thorough and enthusiastic exposition.

“No doubt too, many of her students caught sparks from the fire of her own enthusiasm and were encouraged to believe that they too could eventually teach and even write West Indian History,” he added.

The late Dr. Keith Laurence, who taught History at the Mona campus for 13 years up until 1972 before returning to Trinidad & Tobago to join the St. Augustine campus as a Professor, was very impressed with Goveia after their first meeting in 1959.

“Modest and unassuming, but completely in command of her subject, she had already become a legend on the Mona campus,” he said. “Her lectures were crowded out and not all of those who went to hear her were students of history.”

Jamaica Mutual Life Assurance Society first female president Gloria Knight attested to that.

“I went into a lecture room one day when Elsa Goveia was lecturing and I was so turned on,” said the McGill University graduate who died in 1997. “I couldn’t believe that History could be like that. It is something I will never forget. She was a wonderful teacher. I never missed a lecture by her. It was a new world opening before me every time.”

To honour the distinguished Caribbean historian legacy, the Association of Caribbean Historians awards the Elsa Goveia Book Prize recognizing excellence in the field of Caribbean History.

Since 1985, UWI’s History & Archaeology department has hosted the Elsa Goveia Memorial Lecture.

St. Lucian Sir Roy Augier, who joined the UWI History department in 1955, delivered the inaugural lecture.

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